Outsourcing Airworthiness

March 1, 2005
There is an alarming trend toward fewer and fewer FAA certificated mechanics performing aircraft maintenance.

There is an alarming trend toward fewer and fewer FAA certificated mechanics performing aircraft maintenance. In fact, the FAA is privately predicting that in five years, 70 percent of all aviation maintenance, including line maintenance, will be outsourced to third parties.

Currently, fewer than one in 10 maintenance workers at air carrier third-party repair stations are airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics or repairmen. Many of those companies rely on just a few certificated mechanics to provide their workers the guidance and supervision necessary to assure an airworthy and safe aircraft. The Professional Aviation Maintenance Association (PAMA) feels the burden is too great on those few rated mechanics to effectively oversee such a large uneducated workforce and sustain our enduring safety record.

The hallmarks of an enduring safety program, most notably personal pride and technical excellence, are at stake when most of the workers at these facilities do not even have the benefit of a basic aviation maintenance technology education. The FAA A&P certification, still only recognized as a ticket to learn, provides a new mechanic with a professional foundation in aviation standard practice, tool usage, record keeping, regulations, and other fundamental skills.

In the not too distant past, the ultimate aviation maintenance career was with an airline. The pay was the highest in the industry and the benefits were at the top of their class. Employee stock ownership, profit sharing, and the promise of a lucrative retirement pension spelled stability. All that, and free flight benefits, put air carriers at the top of many mechanics' professional priority lists.

The airlines responded to this buyer's market by demanding tremendous qualifications of their would-be employees. First and foremost, an FAA A&P mechanic certificate was essential. Years of relevant experience were just as important as airlines had their pick of the industry's best. In the mid-1970s, with thousands of mechanics separating from military service, veterans filled FAR Part 147 aviation maintenance technology schools and a highly experienced, all-A&P workforce comprised the airlines' impressive technical brain trust.

Now, as fares continue to drop and fuel prices climb into the stratosphere, the airlines are more frequently making the business decision to let other maintenance providers assure the airworthiness of their fleet.

The welcome exception to this current trend is at many business aviation service centers. There, the emphasis is on attracting and retaining a certificated aircraft maintenance workforce. They must provide accurate high-speed technical support and five-star service with a smile at a competitive price or they lose business. In this highly competitive arena, that means certification and continuous education. To achieve this goal, many general aviation repair stations are handling the parallel problem of an increasing shortage of qualified and certificated mechanics with on-the-job training programs geared toward achieving FAA certification.

Level of safety?

There is a presumption of a single, high level of safety among all operators doing business in compliance with the Federal Aviation Regulations. That is why you will never see an air carrier or maintenance facility use "safety" in differentiating itself from a competitor. By definition, everyone is safe. However, major accidents in the recent past refute that presumption. PAMA is very concerned that "presumed safety" becomes more questionable as noncertificated "mechanic assistants" increasingly dilute our technical workforce.

The idea of outsourcing maintenance to FAA certified repair stations is certainly not new. Most of the aviation maintenance in our country is already being performed in these facilities. With air carriers and manufacturing service centers, along with a growing population of third-party maintenance facilities, holding their own FAR Part 145 certificates, repair stations have been an integral part of our airworthiness infrastructure for many years. This is not the problem.

For PAMA, the controversy over the outsourcing of airline maintenance to third-party repair stations swirls primarily around the technical certification of their maintenance workforce, not the business decision to offer or not offer a particular product or service. The safety hazard looming on the horizon is the increasing use of noncertificated "mechanic assistants," working under the supervision of an accountable manager, where certificated airframe and/or powerplant mechanics had once been used. While repair stations have always had the authority to hire and use these "assistants," there were plenty of FAA certificated A&P mechanics willing to work for the going wage when the airline industry was booming.

At the air carrier level, third-party maintenance is a safety concern because many of these repair facilities have elected to exercise their regulatory right to use a preponderance of noncertificated "mechanic assistants." Airlines, slashing budgets, are outsourcing maintenance because it seems cheaper to do so, at least in the short term. Third-party maintenance facilities, while sometimes claiming to operate more efficiently, are largely able to offer lower costs because the "going wage" is now a lot lower than what a certificated A&P will accept.

How will this business decision to outsource maintenance impact aviation safety? What about the rapid evolution of technology and materials in manufacturing? How will an efficient maintenance workforce keep up with accelerating technological change? Do the aviation community, the flying public, and our government overseers have the foresight and guts to advocate and promote an atmosphere of continuous education and lifelong learning in airworthiness? PAMA believes the industry must closely examine and respond to these basic safety questions before we can truly feel confident in the future safety of air transportation.

It is time for America to take back its leadership role in aviation maintenance and set the standard for future airworthiness. AMT